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Five reasons why the “localisation” agenda has failed in the past – and four reasons why things may now be changing

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The current clamour for more international humanitarian aid to be channelled through local organisations is nothing new, says Steve Williams, head of programmes for the Start Network. There are five reasons why the “localisation” agenda has failed in the past – but four reasons why things may now be changing.

The prominence of what has become known as the ‘localisation agenda’ has rightly been hailed as a real and positive outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), with the international humanitarian community committing to channel 25 per cent of aid as directly as possible to national organisations by 2020.

This is growing recognition that local people themselves are almost always the first to respond to disasters; that they are best placed to provide for the needs of their community; and that they are able to build resilience to future crises. Yet many are sceptical of the international community’s dedication to fulfilling this commitment.

First, the words ‘as directly as possible’ in the commitment seemed to offer a useful get-out clause. And second, the commitment to strengthening local organisations and local capacity is nothing new.  It has been proclaimed as an overriding aim of humanitarian aid for decades, but the proportion of aid channelled directly to local and national non-government organisations (NGOs) remains low, accounting for just 0.4 per cent of international humanitarian assistance in 2015. 

Why the localisation agenda has been so unsuccessful in the past is no secret:

1. Confusion over what ‘local’ actually means

The term ‘local’ means different things to different people.  For some it means getting resources to regional platforms or national organisations, while others focus on smaller society units that work at regional government  or community level.  Both donors and international NGOs (INGOs) have often focused their financial flows on national NGOs (NNGOs) which look and sound similar to their own organisations and may be just national affiliates of global agencies, whilst ignoring a plethora of other potential frontline responders - including community-based organisations, business leaders and faith-based groups. 

Even when ‘local’ groups are used to implement projects, agencies maintain a high degree of control over when and how funds are spent, reducing their relationship with agencies to something closer to that of servant/master, instead of equitable partners.  This allows agencies to feel that they are meeting their obligation to support local groups, whilst not providing opportunities for those organisations to grow, learn and develop.

2. The status quo benefits major players

Although humanitarian agencies are in general filled with hard-working, passionate individuals, the combination of their own organisational mandates combined with the ‘animal instincts’ of all institutions to grow have meant that they give greater priority to fundraising than to strengthening national groups.  Most agencies’ business models are based on their being the intermediary between donors and the people they want to support.  Agencies highlight the need to provide technical support to civil society organisations, but the line between liberal paternalism and their own self-interest has become blurred.

These entrenched political interests are even more apparent within the UN system, which is responsible for an astonishing 65 per cent of all humanitarian aid funding. Its structure, policies and practices mean that resources move only slowly through layers of bureaucracy before finally  reaching civil society organisations.  Indeed, rather than promoting models of decentralised aid delivery, both the Transformative Agenda launched in 2011 and this year’s report by the United Nations’ Secretary General to the World Humanitarian summit continue to focus on the centralisation of aid and the traditional ‘command and control’ structure of its delivery.  

3. Avoidance of risk

Donor policies, proclamations of ‘zero tolerance of fraud’ and commitments to accountability have forced international organisations to increase financial oversight of projects to such an extent that they are unwilling to provide resources to agencies that lack advanced accounting systems.  In this environment, capacity building has been too often reduced to compliance strengthening.  Donors are driven to provide large grants to a select number of large and ‘trusted’ organisations, rather than funding more decentralised models that entail some risk.  Dedicated and skilled humanitarians spend an inordinate amount of time serving the bureaucratic needs of donors rather than the humanitarian needs of beneficiaries.

4. Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)

The private sector has developed a wide array of mechanisms for risk management, which recognise the need to invest today to protect against difficulties tomorrow, but the humanitarian sector continues to be reactive rather than proactive.  Far too few resources are dedicated to disaster risk reduction, which would enable whole ecosystems of local groups, organisations and individuals to develop, all trained and ready to respond to emergencies.  Instead, when resources are eventually mobilised to respond to an emergency, international agencies and donors often struggle to find local agencies strong enough to partner with.

5. Brain drain during emergencies

When large-scale emergencies do occur and funding is mobilised, international agencies prefer (or are forced) simply to expand their own operations, rather than to build their responses on top of existing local capacity.  There are many justifiable reasons for this, including INGOs’ desire to ensure that their activities are independent of political manipulation by national and local government institutions which interact with, or regulate, NNGOs.  The best local staff often move to international organisations, drawn by their higher salaries and better working conditions, debilitating national groups at the very moment when they most need effective leadership. This also leads to the ridiculous state of affairs where agricultural experts and water engineers go to work as translators, drivers or security guards for the UN.

Whilst all of these limitations continue to exit, there are some reasons to be hopeful:

Attitudes are changing: clearly there is greater global recognition that top-down, single delivery approaches to aid can no longer meet the growing needs of those affected by humanitarian crisis – whose number has almost doubled over the past decade.  Unstable food and energy prices, environmental degradation, rapid population growth and urbanisation -- all contribute to increased vulnerability and growing humanitarian needs. The global humanitarian system is overstretched. Given the limited availability of additional funds from donors in the developed world, there is recognition that more must be done to draw on the latent skills of national agencies.

The nature of emergencies is changing: the prevailing model by which international organisations directly implement aid projects, using local people and civil society organisations as contractors rather than partners, is becoming less possible as humanitarian access becomes more restricted.  The vast majority of aid is delivered in conflict zones or other insecure and politically fragile areas where risks are higher. In such places, international organisations are forced to base themselves in a neighbouring country and operate solely through more local organisations that are able and prepared to provide aid on the ground.

Greater humanitarian coordination is leading to greater accountability: many INGOs, often as a result of visionary leadership, are starting to reflect critically on whether they are doing enough to promote localisation.  Groups like the Start Network and International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) have created platforms for agencies to challenge each other and hold one another to account; whilst movements like the Charter4Change challenge agencies to live up to their commitments.  These groups have been joined and supported by ‘southern’ groups, such as the NEAR network, that are demanding to be heard and to be allowed to take part in and lead humanitarian responses.

The world is changing: globalisation, alongside the growth of technology and  the internet, has changed how people interact with one another.  This has caused massive disruption to the private sector, for example with the rise of companies such as Uber, Amazon, Airbnb and Spotify.  Such corporate innovation and related industrial disruption will soon impact on the not-for-profit sector -and agencies will have to evolve and adapt if they want to survive in this brave new world.

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  • by Startnetwork